1997 Season Preview
There are high hopes around the Virginia men's tennis program this season, as the Cavaliers return their most promising mix of talent and experience in recent memory. Another strong recruiting class along with five of the top-six players from a year ago give head coach Thomas Johnston reason to believe the Cavaliers are primed to capture their first NCAA Tournament bid in 24 years.
Virginia hopes to improve upon last season's overall record of 11-11 (4-4 in the ACC), in which all but one of the Cavaliers' losses came against nationally-ranked opponents. Key to the postseason prospects of the 1997 Virginia squad will be its ability to succeed against many of the same ranked foes.
Fourth-year captain Scott Lebovitz returns to the Cavaliers as one of the most successful players in Virginia history. Lebovitz has posted at least 20 wins in each of his first three seasons, finishing with a 22-13 mark last year while playing primarily at #2. This spring, the Cavaliers will look for continued success from Lebovitz as he moves into the top singles position. While Lebovitz does not possess the great size or strength of the prototype #1 singles player, Johnston believes that his talented pupil has what it takes to compete against the top players in the country. "Scott probably plays with as much heart as anybody in the ACC. He's not a real big guy, but he is very fast, extremely determined and is as mentally tough as they come," says Johnston.
Third-year Bear Schofield will move up to the #2 position, after capturing the conference championship at #4 last year. Well known for his powerful serve, Schofield has continued to show tremendous improvement in his all-around game. According to Johnston, "Bear is our most powerful player and has gotten much better as he has gained experience. I feel confident that we can put him in either of the top two singles positions and he can beat most anyone."
Second-year Hyon Yoo hopes to maintain his winning ways after an outstanding freshman season. Last year, Yoo was named the team's Most Valuable Player after leading the Cavaliers in victories while posting a 23-10 mark at #2 and #3. Although Yoo impressed all observers with his stellar play last season, Johnston believes that the young phenom improved significantly in the fall and will excel in the #3 position this season. "He has really worked hard on his game and is attacking more and more which might initially lead to some inconsistency but in the long run his game will be far superior to what it was even last year," said Johnston.
Third-year Justin Smith will likely occupy the #4 position. Smith looks to rebound from an inconsistent season in 1996, during which he unknowingly suffered from mononucleosis. "Justin started to play well towards the end of last season as he began to feel better. He has improved quite a bit and I feel good about playing him most anywhere in the lineup," says Johnston. Smith will play with Schofield at the #1 doubles position.
Second-year Kent Koch returns at the #5 spot where he compiled a 19-12 record a year ago. According to Johnston, "Kent has good volleys and as long as he keeps attacking, he plays great tennis." Johnston expects Koch to team with Yoo at #2 doubles.
Johnston says four Cavaliers are vying for the sixth singles position. At this point, the front runner appears to be third-year Aaron Strimban who played some at #6 last season. "Aaron's game is very much in the mold of Hyon Yoo and Scott Lebovitz. He's very steady from the baseline and real aggressive with his ground strokes but he needs to get a good percentage of his first-serves in to be successful. He's very mentally tough and a true 'money' player," says Johnston.
First-years Chris Chatham, John Winter and Cade Lutz are the other top contenders for the #6 position. "All three played outstanding tennis in the fall so the competition for the last singles spot is very close. We'll just continue to watch them progress and look for someone to emerge as the spring season approaches," says Johnston. Adding depth to this year's team is third-year Andy Nessen and first-years Nick Acquavella and Jeff Dawkins.
The primary strength of this season's team should be its overall experience, which Johnston hopes will pay big dividends. "For the first time since I've been here, we actually have a fair amount of match experience among the guys who will be playing in the top-six. In the past, we have had at least two freshmen in the first six but now we are starting to get a little older and a little more experienced, which should really pay off. As with any team though, our success will depend largely upon having all six players ready to play each match and our experience should help us in that aspect of preparation. I believe that we have what it takes but for us to be really successful, we need to become great at playing one point at a time. If we improve in that respect, we can have a great team here at Virginia."
The disappointment which followed their exclusion from the NCAA Tournament last season has provided the Cavaliers with the necessary motivation to prove they belong among the nation's tennis elite. "Right now, we're using the tournament as a motivational tool and we talk about at almost every practice," says Johnston. "I think the guys on the team are very aware of how close we were to making it to the tournament last year and they realize that if they can become a little more consistent, we are certainly capable of making it this year. We constantly remind each other of the importance of being ready for every match so that we won't have to experience the disappointment of last year again."
The Cavaliers will certainly have ample opportunity to prove themselves this season on the national scene as the schedule features several highly-ranked opponents. "We have an outstanding schedule this year with matches against as many as 15 teams who are in the top-50 in the country. If we can be successful against that kind of competition then we can certainly improve our ranking."
The 1997 season will be the first for the Cavaliers in the brand new Sheridan Snyder Tennis Center. The state-of-the-art, 13-court facility is seen as an essential step in the development of the program and is expected to pay immediate dividends. "The new facility really means a lot to the program. It does an enormous amount of good for everyone's attitude because our team is more excited about going to practice every day. Everyone is much happier playing in an atmosphere that is more conducive to playing good tennis and prospective recruits have noticed it as well," says Johnston.
Johnston is optimistic that the 1997 version of Virginia tennis has all the ingredients necessary for the program to join the nation's tennis elite. "To have a successful program, you really need a great facility, a good coach, a strong schedule, and the support of the administration. Fortunately, we have a commitment now in all of those areas, which really makes me excited about the future. I really see this year as a launching point for the program. We have what it takes to beat any team in the conference, now its just a matter of whether or not we're ready to play."